December 03, 2003

What Do Readers Want? A Connection

The American Journalism Review dove into the deep pool of data and analysis compiled by the Readership Institute and surfaced in its current issue with a story provocatively entitled: Why Do People Read Newspapers?

The question, of course, remains unanswered, but the story examines efforts by various newspapers to incorporate the Readership Institute's core guidelines into their daily and longer-term decision-making. The guidelines, which the Institute calls, the "four cornerstones of readership growth," are:

 Providing excellent customer service.
 Improving editorial and advertising content.
 Building recognition and loyalty through stronger brand promotion.
 Reforming management and culture.

It is unclear why AJR chose this time to write about the Readership Institute's research, which has been ongoing since its formation in 1999. Don't misunderstand me. I am a big fan of the Institute's work, particularly its emphasis on changing the destructive nature of newsroom culture, which I believe undermines all other innovation and change initiatives and which I have written about several times, including here.

But, I am curious why the magazine (for which I write occasionally) did this particular piece, especially since the article doesn't report on the success or failure of readership efforts at the newspapers its interviews - the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Bakersfield Californian, the Racine Journal Times. I'd like to know: Is this stuff working? And, if it is, is circulation the only metric for measuring success?

(FYI: According the latest figures filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the Journal-Constitution's circulation is up 5,400 from 03/02 to 03/03 - to 410,761; the Californian's, though, is down 2,500 in the same period to 69,729; and the Journal Times' numbers are down 538 copies to 28,698 from 09/02 to 09/03.)

That said, any discussion about or publicity of the Readership Institute's work is good the for news industry, which, as the article points out, has tinkered with the content mix of its papers, but has been glacial in its efforts to improve its staff or invigorate its culture. (Read the Readership Institute's research on culture and staff development, the lack of which is the primary driver for the best and the brightest leaving the industry.)

Disappointingly - and, unfortunately, not surprisingly - in AJR's interviews with readership editors and other change managers in the industry, none mentioned using the Internet, with its great powers of interactivity, as a readership-building tool. I'll skip the usual argument hear about how involvement breeds habit, but it's way beyond the time for any readership discussion not to include conversation about electronic editions, forums, blogging, participatory journalism and other methods of moving the newspaper brand beyond a 14-by-21-inch swath of newsprint.

AJR included a sidebar on what readers like to see in newspapers - ideas of which many (intensely local, chicken-dinner news, teasers, feature-writing) don't necessarily, as Pete Bhatia, head of ASNE and executive editor of the Portland Oregonian, "line up with what our ideals are for good journalism."

Bhatia points out, though, and the Readership Institute agrees, that readers still want, and even expect, solid, serious, Big J journalism. My point, and the Readership Institute agrees, is that readers want more - more hometown news, more connection, more relevance, more attention paid to what they think and less paid to what other journalists think. One type of journalism doesn't fit all.

Beneath all these problems is newspaper culture. It is anti-change, insular and innovation-adverse and it can only be modified from within. Without culture change, content is mere frosting on a hollow cake.

If you're a journalist, read the Readership Institute material. Print it out. Pass it around. Practice it.

If you're a reader, write to your newspaper. Tell them what you want to read. Tell them what you thought of today's paper, what you liked, what you hated, what moved you, what disgusted you, what bored you.

They may just be in the mood to listen.

(Tom Mangan has more on this at Prints the Chaff, including this anecdote: "True story about a real newspaper: The boss hires this research firm to ask all these questions about his paper and gets almost all the same answers. He implements a few cosmetic changes that suit his prejudices and ignores the rest of the recommendations, and nothing fundamentally changed at the paper, including its circulation slide.")

 American Journalism Review Why Do People Read Newspapers?
 American Journalism Review What They Like

Posted by Tim Porter at December 3, 2003 08:11 AM